Cancer Council

Public submissions to the review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

Page last updated: 24 February 2012

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Review of the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme – response from Cancer Council Australia

Responsibility for the content of this submission is taken by Terry Slevin, Chair of Cancer Council Australia's Occupational and Environmental Cancers Committee.

Contact for further information: Paul Grogan, c/o or (02) 8063 4155.


Cancer Council Australia's goal is to prevent cancer and reduce the burden of illness, disability and death caused by cancer. Cancer Council Australia seeks to achieve this through the development and promotion of effective evidence-based cancer control policies and programs in Australia.

Exposure to industrial chemicals in an occupational setting is an important cancer issue. Employees in a significant number of workplaces are exposed to chemical compounds at higher concentrations and for longer periods than people in other environments. There is a growing evidence base linking such work-based exposures to a number of cancers, most prevalent among them cancers of the skin, lung and bladder. Recent research also links laryngeal and sinonasal cancers with occupation exposure.iCancer Council Australia therefore has a high stake in ensuring the regulation of industrial chemicals in the workplace puts the health and safety of workers before any other stakeholder concern.

About our response

It is noted that the review focuses largely on governance and functional issues for NICNAS and the extent to which they adequately reflect stakeholder expectations and international best practice.

In responding, we have emphasised that any systematic change to NICNAS must be underpinned by a regulatory system that decreases the burden of ill health and environmental damage as a consequence of the occupational use of chemical substances.


Cancer Council Australia makes the following general recommendations, which we believe are pivotal to the Government's capacity to meet the overarching aims of the review:
  • Undertake a rigorous, comprehensive review into the use of hazardous substances and chemical regulation, as the first step towards developing a regulatory regime that encourages reduced use of hazardous substances (e.g. Toxic Use Reduction)ii and the elimination of known toxic agents and which institutes legislation similar to that of the European Union REACH framework.
  • On the basis of such a review, develop and introduce federal legislation similar to the European Union's REACH framework (a single legal model for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals". REACH replaced 40 separate EU laws and aims to enhance the protection of people and the environment from dangerous chemicals and raise knowledge of related hazards).
  • Create a single overseeing body with the role of coordinating the healthy and safe use of chemicals in the occupational setting, which is able to make recommendations to individual agencies to ensure consistency, identify gaps or contradictions within the systems and to shepherd the adoption of a best practice approach which incorporates toxic use reduction, prioritisation of hazards of high concern and the gathering of useful data to inform future regulation and use.
  • Ensure enforcement of safety regulations is allocated to relevant agencies.
  • Collect and analyse quality data that will inform a more evidence-based approach to the safe regulation of chemicals in the workplace.
Cancer Council Australia does not oppose reduction in regulatory burden of industry. We do, however, believe that this should never be the primary aim of a regulatory regime. A regulatory regime must be designed to protect human environmental health from the adverse effects of exposures to potentially hazardous chemicals. On this basis the regulatory regime must rely on the fundamental principles of:
  • Reduced human and environmental exposure to hazardous substances through reduced industrial use of such substances. This needs to be balanced against maintaining economic viability of relevant industries, provided protecting human health is the first priority (for example the Toxic Use Reduction approach
  • Community and worker right to be clearly informed about the risks associated with chemical use. This is one of the platforms of REACHiii i.e. no data no use - chemicals without evidence that they can be used safely cannot be used until the evidence is provided.
  • A regulatory regime that promotes higher-order controls to eliminate or minimise exposure to hazardous substances. Such a regime would need to develop replacements for, and utilise the phase out of, substances of high concern e.g. most IARC group 1 and 2A carcinogens and mutagens etc.
  • Industry development policy that provides incentives for technical/technological innovations, including advances in green chemistry, to reduce the use of hazardous substances and humans and environmental exposure to such substances .


Enhanced governance and administration of NICNAS must be underpinned by a comprehensive approach that integrates occupational and environmental concerns and the establishment of systems to collect data to assist in the prioritisation of regulatory and compliance efforts.

Evidence from the United States suggests that industrial facilities that perform poorly under the EPA's Clean Air Act are also facilities that have come to the notice of the OSHA for poor health and safety performance more generally.iv

The report of the Productivity Commission (PC) study into Chemicals and Plastics Regulation in Australia concluded that Australia's current regimes are broadly effective in managing risks to health and safety, but are less effective in managing risks to the environment and national security"1.
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1 From "Key Points" Chemicals and Plastics Regulation Productivity Commission Research Report July 2008.

Due to the paucity of Australian data, it is not possible to confidently make the statement current regimes are broadly effective in managing risks to health and safety…." We have no evidence at all about how many people are currently exposed in the workplace to chemical substances which may pose a risk to their health. There are some surveillance schemes for disease outcomes in operation, but the only truly national system is the Australian Mesothelioma Registry which, as its name suggests, covers only mesothelioma.

Due to the latency between exposure and the development of the disease, the register reflects exposure in past decades rather than providing a good indication of the effect of current exposures. Australia has no effective national health surveillance system for the prevalence of work related asthmav, cancers other than mesothelioma, or dermatitis, all of which can be caused by exposure to any of a wide range of hazardous substances.

Key challenges for NICNAS

The regulation of chemicals in an occupational setting is an inherently complex issue. The current Australian approach is further complicated by an uncoordinated, overly complex chemical-by-chemical approach to regulation, which is difficult to understand, difficult to implement and difficult to enforce. The best efforts of specific agencies and their staff cannot overcome this flawed system architecture.

According to the Standing Committee on Chemicalsvi, there are nine federal ministries involved in the regulation of chemicals and plastics. This division of responsibilities has evolved from reasonable differences attributable to sector, type of use of chemical etc.

The usage of most chemical substances predates the introduction of various regulatory frameworks based on a risk management approach, e.g. the registration of agricultural hazardous substances for specific uses, the classification of substances by Safework Australia based on the properties of the chemical substance, the assessment of risk by NICNAS for new industrial chemicals or the measurement of emissions into the environment of 93 selected substances by National Pollution Inventory.

There are nearly 40,000 industrial chemicals listed on ACIS which have been accepted" for use and have not been assessed by NICNAS. The current approach to chemicals in the occupational setting is broadly based on an assumption of innocent until proven guilty". This is not international best practice. A process of attempting to manage existing and new chemicals, substance by substance, is clearly unmanageable by any single agency. A system to prioritise the most important or potentially higher risk chemicals needs to be established. Such a system must take a co-ordinated approach to both the occupational and environmental uses and effects of hazardous substances, and provide incentives to decrease use, improve control and substitute less hazardous substances for more hazardous substances in a timely and comprehensive manner.

Other countries grappling with the same challenges are implementing a variety of solutions: e.g. toxic use reduction, prioritisation of chemicals of high concern and a no data no use" approach. Toxic Use Reduction (TUR) is best showcased in the US state of Massachusetts, where laws use a combination of regulatory and voluntary measures and have been effective in significantly reducing use.vii Top of Page

The TUR approach contrasts with the Australian regulatory regime in key areas. Under TUR:

1. The focus is on reduction or elimination of USE where use" refers to feedstock, usage within the enterprise and emissions. This avoids the need for end of pipe" pollution control. The Australian National Pollution Inventory requires facilities to report annual emissions and transfers of 93 toxic substances in excess of 10 tonnes.

2. Reduction or elimination of priority chemicals based upon the inherently hazardous nature of the product is the priority. Again compare this to the Australian hazardous substances regulations which are based on risk management approach to specific substances which are classified by the manufacturer.

3. Planning is mandated, action on the plans is voluntary.

4. There is considerable technical support to industry.

Prioritisation of chemicals, based upon the inherent properties of substances, is also the basis for the European Union's REACH system, i.e. no data, no use". The EU is developing a list of priority substances – i.e. substances of high concern.

NICNAS has been funded for a similar approach for about 3,000 chemicals; however unlike REACH, there is no regulatory link between NICNAS and Hazardous Substances Regulations. The Memorandum of Understanding between NICNAS and Safework Australia does not rectify the discrepancies between the two systems.

Case study one: formaldehyde

One indicative case study is the incomplete and patchy adoption of recommendations from the 2006 NICNAS Priority Existing Chemical (PEC) Report for Formaldehyde. The NICNAS PEC recommended that formaldehyde be reclassified as a Category 2 carcinogen and that the occupational exposure standard based on the hazard assessment for formaldehyde be lowered to 0.3 ppm 8h TWA & 0.6 ppm STEL. The SafeWork Hazardous Substances Information System (accessed 10/11/2011) listed Formaldehyde as a Category 3 Carcinogen, in contrast to the Exposure standard (published by Safework Australia) listing formaldehyde as Category2 carcinogen but listing the exposure standard as 1 ppm TWA and 2 ppm STEL.

This example highlights the difficulties posed by the silo approach of chemical regulation in the occupational setting.

Case study two: the National Pollution Inventory (NPI)

Another example of the siloed and disconnected approach to the regulation of chemicals in the occupational setting is the National Pollution Inventory. Facilities must report their emissions of more than 10 tonnes annually of the 93 substances on the inventory. There is no regulatory link between NPI and NICNAS, Safework Australia or Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority or consistency of classification of chemical hazards. For example, of the 93 substances on the NPI, 26 are described has having some carcinogenic properties. Many chemicals classified by IARC as known carcinogens are not on the NPI list.

Safework Australia writes Model Regulations for carcinogen usage inside work sites whilst the NPI records emissions of over 10 tonnes of 26 substances with some carcinogenic potential from work sites. The NPI threshold of 10 tonnes contrasts with the threshold of 460 kilograms for Higher Hazard Substances (HHS), as designated by the Toxic Use Reduction Institute, Massachusetts.viii

The lack of Australian data on either exposures or uses of chemicals is highlighted by the difficulty in estimating the number and future number of occupational cancers. Australia has little published data on exposure to Group 1 and Group 2A carcinogens. There is no equivalent of CAREX Canada ( which could be used to better guide work on priority work-related exposures and priority work-related cancers. The Health and Safety Executive in UK are funding research which includes the development of a methodology to estimate the future burden of occupational cancers.

Australia sadly lacks equivalent data which could be used to identify where these potential risks exist.

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i Steenland K, Burnett C, Lalich N, Ward E, Hurrell J, Dying for work: the magnitude of US mortality from selected causes of death associated with occupation, Am J Ind Med 2003 May; 43(5):461-482.

ii Toxic Use Reduction

iii Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances. More information at

iv Pump Handle

v There is a NSW system

vi SCOC website


viii Ibid.